Monday, February 19, 2007

Wandering and Lusting: Chapel Hill, Harrisburg, and my inability to be content

A commenting friend recently asked me to explain why I'm a fan of the University of North Carolina's basketball team. The boring, real answer is that I just always have been. It has nothing to do with the fact that UNC is the second-most successful program of all time (I've never been a simple front-runner, though I'm also a Yankees fan, so I understand this is starting to look bad). It also has nothing to do with the fact that the greatest player of all time wore Carolina blue.

It simply stems from a day when I was seven years old, saw a game on TV, and liked how the team's court and uniforms looked. I also liked -- and still like, quite a lot -- how "North Carolina" sounds. Just to prove how raw (and lame) my decision-making was, the team won the national title that year (Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins...a decent squad) and I have no memory of that. I truly saw one midseason game and filed away my conclusion for a later date: I like that team. Like I said, I was seven. I had just passed the age of reason, for god's sake.

As I got older, college basketball was close beside baseball as my favorite sport, so I enjoyed having interest in a particular school. That makes it sound bland and functional, though, when in fact, there have been many times over the past 25 years when my love has caused maniacal outbursts of joy and frustration. In one of my teenage years, I sat in the upper deck of Reunion Arena in Dallas, during an NCAA tournament game against the Arkansas Razorbacks, surrounded by thousands of the opposition's fans, all loudly repeating the school's subtle, dignified "pig sooey" chant. I enthusiastically waved in their general direction (meaning everywhere) the Carolina... well, I suppose they were pom-poms of a sort, though I feel a fresh stab of shame admitting that. They had been handed to me at the door, and they were a necessary tool for having my voice heard. I was the lone powder-blue dissenter amid an army of red-wearing, red-faced, hog-impersonating Arkansans.

Carolina lost.

Over time, in order to justify such insanity and such pain, I had put flesh on my initial reasoning. I had buttressed my allegiance with some old-fashioned logic. Dean Smith was unanimously hailed as a classy coach. The team played smart, team-oriented basketball, year in and year out, no matter how much talent the best player possessed. (An old joke goes that coach Smith was the only person who could limit Jordan to 20 points a game.) And they had the perfect foil in Duke, which, despite having quite a storied program of its own, still managed to come off as the obnoxious nouveau riche half of the rivalry.

And certainly not most important, but not least, either, was the place: Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I had never been there (still haven't), but it couldn't have sounded more idyllic. I say not least important because I've always desired to live elsewhere, no matter where I am. Living in my head, Dad calls it. As a kid on Long Island, in a family that had never moved and that very rarely traveled any distance, I was capable of thinking about the larger world, but less capable of seeing myself in it, so I crafted smaller imaginings for me. I would visit someone else's home, or even just pass by a house with a peculiar design, and then spend a good deal of time picturing myself in that space, wondering which room would be my favorite, in which corner chair I would read my books, from which window I would stare on a snowy day. There was something incredibly comforting to think that my environment could change, even slightly, and everything would look and feel new. Of course, I could hardly have come from a happier childhood home, so there was also comfort in knowing that things wouldn't change.

Up until even my mid-20s, I didn't see just how strong this pattern was, of keeping fictional places close to me like other kids clutched security blankets. Now that I continue to follow it, despite living in New York, a place I truly love on many levels and have several reasons to think of as Home, I can't deny that it's the most unshakable aspect of my personality (aside from maybe my sense of humor and my generalized anxiety).

I should note here that I don't like traveling. I crave a good road trip with some regularity, but I'm not thrilled to fly, especially when I'm taking two long flights just to spend a few days somewhere. So if it's not an oxymoron, I have a provincial, not worldly, wanderlust. My imagined habitats are often towns or cities in which I've never set foot (I was fixated on Vancouver for a while), but when I have spent time somewhere -- in, say, Ithaca or Saratoga or Pittsburgh or Chicago -- the desire becomes stronger.

Because of this tendency, it's easy for others to roll their eyes when I find another locale to add to the teeming realty office that is my brain. After all, chances are that it's not an interesting/attractive/viable place, because they think it doesn't have to be. Just a new place will suffice. But that's not quite how it works. I'm not above leaving somewhere off the list, even if I'm impressed by it. Seattle: too far from friends and family. Austin: Too hot. Much too hot. Boston: Stayed on the list too long at one point when I lived in Texas; it got stale and crumbled away. And of course, there are places that just don't strike me as especially appealing (hi, Binghamton; how's it going, Dayton?)

All of this is preface (preface we could have been spared, you're all angrily screaming, and understandably so) to the fact that I just got back from a weekend trip to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I went with a traveling companion to see my brother-in-law perform I Am My Own Wife at a theater there. (He's modest, so I'm not devoting a separate post to the experience, but he's really brilliant; raises the average talent level in the family a few notches, so for that reason and more, we're glad to have him.)

Harrisburg made a great first impression. It didn't hurt that it was covered in clean snow, but it was a surprise to drive for a long stretch along the Susquehanna River, which is very wide where it says hello to Harrisburg before hurrying along; to see the charming shops and old buildings that line the same waterfront stretch; to see several pretty and distinct bridges that span the river; and to walk past beautifully preserved row houses lining blocks that surround the majestic state capitol building. It's less than two hours from Philly, about three and a half from New York, and it has a minor league baseball team. I'm just saying, I have no idea why I don't live there.

We also spent a night in Hershey, PA, which I have to say was no less charming, though in a much more suburban way. Everything about it, from the movie theater to the giant medical center to the high school (which looks like a planetarium), managed to avoid seeming too sterile. The easiest way to sum it up (and one of the most meaningless coming from me) is that it seemed like a good place to raise kids. Also, and this might be influencing my judgment, it predictably features a Hershey's factory, around which the air is thick with the smell of chocolate. And in case you can't guess, that is magical.

I'm not moving to Harrisburg, of course. And if I ever do, I'm sure that after a year or so I'll be talking up Chicago again. You know, Wrigley Field is nestled right in a bustling neighborhood that really seems like my kind of place...



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